Wittenberg versus Wabash is the game that decides the North Coast Athletic Conference championship almost every year in football. Last season Wittenberg’s only blemish in the regular season was a heartbreaking 27-24 loss to Wabash that seemed to doom the team’s season. However, Wittenberg got some late help last season as Wabash was upset to allow the Tigers to share the conference title. But, with only one game left in the season after the match-up this was the de-facto NCAC championship game, win or watch the playoffs from home.
The Tigers, (7-1) overall and (7-0) in NCAC play, traveled to take on the undefeated Wabash Little Giants on Saturday, November 9. The two team’s held a to game lead in the NCAC, meaning that the winner would clinch at least a share of the conference title and more importantly the conference’s automatic bid into the Division III Playoffs.
The Tigers started the game in dominating fashion, as they hoped to end a two game losing streak to their arch-rival. Sophomore running back Sean Gary took the handoff and ran 25 yards for the opening touchdown of the game. The extra point by sophomore Evan Grissom put the visitors on top 7-0. After the Wittenberg defense forced two punts in a row, the Tigers went on a 10 play, 84 yard drive that was capped by a 13 yard touchdown pass from senior Reed Florence to senior Brendon Cunningham. Wooster responded with a 43 yard field goal to make the score 14-3 Wittenberg just a minute into the second quarter. A few minutes later, Gary added his second score of the day on a six yard touchdown run to put Wittenberg up 21-3. As the defense continued to dominate the game, the Wittenberg offense put basically put the game out of reach before halftime. Cunningham and Florence again connected on a touchdown, this time on an eight yard pass with only 11 seconds left in the half. Wittenberg took a 28-3 lead into halftime, and had entirely dominated the Little Giants.
Wabash scored with just under five minutes left in the third quarter to bring the score to 28-10 Wittenberg. The game turned into a defensive battle at this point, with neither team scoring for over a full quarter of play. Wittenberg finally scored with three minutes left in the game to put the game out of reach once and for all. Gary plunged in from one yard out to make it 35-10. Wabash tacked on a garbage time score with eight seconds left for the game’s final margin, 35-17.
“It was a great overall team performance,” Florence said. “Our defense played outstanding and we made some plays early to jump out on them early,” he continued.
It was an extremely physical game, with Wabash playing extremely dirty. A Wabash defensive back was ejected in the second quarter for throwing multiple punches at Cunningham. Cunningham impressively restrained himself and responded with the two touchdown catches. Another Wabash defender was ejected in the second half for a targeting call, or launching into the helmet of a defenseless receiver.
Florence led the team with 260 yards passing and two touchdowns. Gary led the team with 21 rushing attempts for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Cunningham dominated Wabash’s secondary with nine catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns, followed by junior Zac Wilson with four catches for 71 yards. Senior Jonathan Stoner also had 35 yards receiving. Grissom was perfect on extra points, and also booted a 68 yard punt.
Wittenberg’s defense absolutely dominated Wabash, with junior linebacker Nick Gibson leading the team with 13 total tackles. Senior Spencer Leno also reached double digits in tackles with 11. Sophomore defensive back Winston Thomas had an interception return for 23 yards. Seniors Kyle Sanning, Evan Killilea and Josh Montgomery, along with freshman Brady Vanover, each recorded a sack, with senior Mark Swope totaling nine tackles, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble.
Wittenberg hosts Allegheny for Senior Night next Saturday in the last game of the regular season. The team will then receive its playoff assignment and look to improve on last season’s playoff trip that saw the team advance to the second round.
“We have to take it one game at a time now, make sure we have great weeks of practice, keep everyone focused and make sure we are getting prepared,” Florence said when asked about what the Tigers need to do now. It will certainly be an exciting finish to the season for the Wittenberg Tigers.